By Ken Isaacson
When Reece Hirsch’s debut novel, The Insider, hit the scene, John Lescroart proclaimed that he was fit to run with the big boys, while Gayle Lynds warned John Grisham to watch his back. The Insider was a finalist for the 2011 International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel. With the upcoming release of Reece’s third book, INTRUSION, he proves himself once more to be worthy of the acclaim.
All of Reece’s books draw upon his experiences as an attorney—though his legal work is a lot less exciting and hazardous than that of his protagonist Chris Bruen. Reece is a partner in the San Francisco office of an international law firm and co-chairs its privacy and cybersecurity practice.
In INTRUSION (coming December 9 in eBook, Paperback and Audiobook from Thomas & Mercer), we once more meet attorney Bruen, former DOJ cybercrimes prosecutor. When a powerful client summons him for a midnight meeting, Bruen knows something is very wrong. Zapper, the world’s most popular search engine, has been compromised, and its most valuable asset—search algorithms—has been stolen. The company suspects that this most recent instance in a wave of high-tech crimes originated in China, and that the government itself is behind the systematic theft of U.S. intellectual property.
Bruen travels to China to search for evidence that will link the intrusion to the People’s Liberation Army. With remote assistance from Zoey Doucet, the head of his firm’s computer forensics lab and his maybe-girlfriend, Bruen uncovers information that takes him even deeper into the shadowy world of cybercrime. Now he is trapped in a foreign land with a hard drive containing information that puts his life in jeopardy. In this secretive world of Big Data, Bruen will risk everything to fight an elusive enemy as far-reaching as the Internet itself.
Reece has kindly agreed to answer some questions:
Data breaches. Hacking. Unfortunately, we read about these things almost daily. Was there a real-life event that served to inspire INTRUSION?
In my legal practice I assist clients in responding to security breaches nearly every day, but INTRUSION was inspired by a particular 2009 breach of Google that was attributed to hackers based in China. Google was reported to have hired a host of top-tier data security experts to harden its defenses and that is the sort of crisis-level breach that kicks things off in Chapter 1 of INTRUSION.
INTRUSION deals with state-sponsored hacking backed by China’s People’s Liberation Army. It’s very difficult for any private company to defend against that sort of sophisticated cyber threat. The former director of the NSA called this systematic theft of U.S. intellectual property by foreign hackers the greatest transfer of wealth in history. And that’s where my protagonist Chris Bruen is called in. He’s a former hacker and DOJ cybercrimes prosecutor who is uniquely suited to tracking down cybercriminals.
You refer to the world of “Big Data.” What, exactly, is Big Data?
Big Data refers to the enormous databases of personal information that are being collected by the government and large businesses like major retailers and Internet search engines. The reason we’re hearing the term Big Data so much these days is that analytics tools have now become sophisticated enough to comb through all that data to gather very detailed, actionable information about all of us. There’s a chapter in INTRUSION where we see a data analytics expert at an Internet search engine demonstrate just how much information he has at his fingertips in tracking someone. I think it’s all the more scary because it’s true.
It seems as if no matter what advances are made to protect our privacy or security online, hacks are constantly being found. Must we accept, as a fact of life, that we browse the Internet and conduct commerce there, at our own risk? Or is there hope that the good guys will prevail?
As data security experts say, out of 100 attempts, a hacker only has to be right once. But that doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands and resign ourselves to being victims of hacks and cybercrimes. Data security experts and attorneys like Chris Bruen still fight the good fight to stop cybercriminals and bring them to justice. But for you and me when we’re transacting business online, it’s probably best to assume that you’re always vulnerable to theft and your privacy is never certain.
I’m intrigued by the concept of ding zui, which you touch upon in your book. Tell us about that.
Ding zui, the practice of “substitute criminals,” has been associated with the Chinese criminal justice system since the nineteenth century. It has been reported that certain wealthy families have paid others to serve prison sentences for family members, sort of a “cap and trade” system for crime. Tao Zhang, the primary bad guy in my book, is driven to become a hit man to protect his brother, who has been forced into serving as a “substitute criminal.” I couldn’t believe that such a practice existed, even if it isn’t officially acknowledged. When I read about ding zui, I knew I had to use it in my book.
One hot topic these days is the use of military drones that allow air strikes that are controlled remotely by someone sitting safely at a keyboard. The kind of state-sponsored computer hacking you describe raises the specter of another kind of warfare conducted via computer. From your vantage point as a cybersecurity expert, do you see this as the 21st century battlefield?
Definitely. The first Chris Bruen book, The Adversary, deals with issues of cyberwarfare and cyberterrorism. The Adversary was inspired by the Stuxnet computer virus, the first super-sophisticated, targeted weapon of cyberwarfare, which was created by the U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies and used to destroy centrifuges used in Iran’s nuclear program. But once that sort of virus has been unleashed, that code is out there in the world. The Adversary posits that a virus like Stuxnet falls into the hands of black hat hackers and is turned back against the U.S. as a weapon of cyberterrorism. It’s a very real threat today, but I certainly hope it never comes to pass.
As a full-time attorney, how do you balance between the demands of your law practice and your writing?
It’s not easy to find the time given the pressures of client demands and billable hours, but I do much of my writing while riding the BART train into my office in San Francisco, and on weekend mornings. I was always inspired by the fact that Scott Turow was said to have written Presumed Innocent while riding the train to work as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. He got off that train after his first book, but I’m still riding and writing. Fortunately, my legal practice also provides plenty of inspiration for my writing because the world of privacy and security law regularly introduces me to some pretty scary real-world scenarios.
Are you working on the next Chris Bruen installment? What can you share with us about it?
I’m currently working on the third Chris Bruen book. I don’t want to say too much about it just yet, but I can say that it’s going to be very fast-paced and it’s going to deal with new privacy and security issues that are going to be very familiar to anyone who’s been keeping up with recent headlines. I think Chris is a character that I will be able to keep coming back to, and certainly the world of hackers and cybercriminals is going to continue to provide great fodder for thrillers. Some of the scariest aspects of my books are also the most accurate.
Reece Hirsch is the author of three thrillers that draw upon his background as a privacy and cybersecurity attorney. His first book, THE INSIDER, was a finalist for the 2011 Thriller Award for Best First Novel. Hirsch is a partner in the San Francisco office of an international law firm and co-chair of its privacy and cybersecurity practice. He is also a member of the board of directors of 826 National. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife and a small, unruly dog.
To learn more about Reece, please visit his website.